Marsteller’s legacy of masterful mentorship, advocacy in the sciences continues

By April Hunt | Emory Report | July 30, 2020

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Patricia Marsteller, who retires Aug. 1, has been a fierce and early advocate of programs to encourage undergraduate science research and study, especially for students who are underrepresented in STEM fields.

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Patricia Marsteller didn’t have much time after spring semester to reflect on her 30-year Emory College of Arts and Sciences career devoted to developing ways to attract and support underrepresented students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

She was already busy with a three-day workshop on creating the case-based courses that have proven fundamental to attracting students to the sciences.

After all, she reasoned, she doesn’t officially retire as professor of practice in the biology department and associate dean of undergraduate research and scholarship until Aug. 1.

“I’m not planning to go away,” Marsteller says. “The only big thing I wanted to do differently is to travel more, but the whole world is shut down. So, I might as well keep going.”

Making a space for all students in the sciences

Twenty-three members of the Emory College faculty retired in 2020, a cohort of extraordinary scholars and teachers who were pivotal in Emory University’s transition to a world-renowned research institution.

Marsteller’s legacy, as a fierce and early advocate in various programs to encourage undergraduate science research and study, is felt at Emory and in the broader scientific community.

As chair of the Section on Education of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Marsteller helped establish the general policies of the world’s largest science organization. She is also a fellow with the prestigious organization. 

She served as director of the former Emory College Center for Science Education from 1997 until 2016, where she was especially influential in developing and promoting the student research and mentoring programs that have become a hallmark of an Emory education.

Hired in 1990 as the first director of the Emory Howard Hughes Medical Institute Initiative (HHMI), Marsteller’s specific role officially centered on drawing more underrepresented minorities to the natural sciences.

As Emory rose to national prominence, in part by developing more undergraduate research opportunities and a research-rich curriculum, Marsteller was reaching her goals to encourage students to use time in the science lab to hone the problem-solving skills critical to liberal arts excellence. Part of that included working to train faculty in the novel teaching methods that supported the overall goals to increase recruitment of underrepresented students to the sciences.

Her initiatives supported not only students from underrepresented groups but other Emory students who now thrive as pharmacists, lawyers, teachers and public health workers.

“Emory made a commitment as an education destination for everyone,” says Daniel “Danny” Shoy, 95C, who has served as president and CEO of Atlanta’s East Lake Foundation for 10 years.

“Pat brings that commitment to life, with great intention for people like me who might question whether they belong,” Shoy adds. “I know scores of Black alumni who benefitted from the support she readily gave to our dreams.”

As a senior program officer with the Arthur Blank Foundation in 2007, Shoy worked with Marsteller and recommended approval of a $900,000 grant from the foundation’s Pathway to Success program to Emory’s Center for Science Education, to provide college-prep support for Atlanta-area high school students considering health and science careers.

Showcasing the liberal arts-research connection

Marsteller’s work feels personal because it is. The oldest of 11 children who grew up on a farm, she got an early view of the value of the hands-on, unscripted learning she would later champion at Emory.

She, too, had been in the minority as a woman majoring in biology at the University of Maryland. As a first-generation college graduate, she also took note of the untapped potential in adult co-workers in her work-study job at the dining hall.

She carried those experiences with her through her master’s degree and PhD studying evolution and genetics. At Emory, she was ready to test her theory that getting people into research settings would lead to success in science and in life.

Her first creation out of the HHMI grant was Hughes Undergraduates Excelling in Sciences (HUES). The weeklong orientation for underrepresented first-year students interested in science and health included sessions on creating a personalized academic action plan and study strategies.

Most critically, it also connected the incoming students with faculty and existing students who would continue to mentor and support them throughout the year.

The program was so influential that Marsteller successfully sought funding from the National Science Foundation to broaden it into a summer bridge program.

That initiative, Getting a Leg Up at Emory (GLUE), allowed invited students from the Atlanta and Oxford campuses to delve into subjects such as chemistry, public health and ethics through case studies.

This fall, more than 70 incoming first-year students will participate in STEM Pathways, the continuation of HUES and GLUE after their grant funding ended in 2015. Marsteller retires having helped bring an incredible seven HHMI grants to Emory.

“Emory has had committed people,” she says. “I’m grateful for that.”

That support for Marsteller’s plans also boosts Emory’s connection with the community. With a National Science Foundation grant, she broadened a mentorship effort for K-12 students in Atlanta-area schools to dive deep into new ways of teaching and mentoring all students.

For about eight years, the program paired graduate students in math and science with middle and high school teachers to create problem-based and case-based learning materials.

Gillian Hue aligned herself with Marsteller shortly after arriving at Emory for graduate study in neuroscience. Marsteller helped cement her love for teaching science as much as learning it.

Hue went on to teach biology to talented high schoolers in the Pipeline program (now the Emory Pipeline Collaborative, or EPiC in the Emory University School of Medicine) with the Blank Foundation and as an assistant professor at Georgia Gwinnett College for three years.

She has been a lecturer in Emory’s neuroscience and behavioral biology department since fall 2017.

“Pat had a deep impact in a lot of ways, but more importantly she created a space where you felt like you could have an impact,” Hue says. “The number of people who came up through Pat’s vision, that Emory is not a privileged space for a certain kind of learner, makes me actively think abut how I am teaching so I can capture the people who came up with different tools.”

Looking to the future

With all Marsteller has accomplished across Emory’s schools, in the Atlanta community and beyond, it’s hard for her to decide what comes next. In addition to exploring partnerships with other Atlanta universities to develop research opportunities, she is looking forward to taking on issues like voter suppression.

Beyond planning voter registration drives, she also is considering taking up the keyboard. “First, I have to learn how to read music,” she says.

Far easier, it seems, will be finishing up an annotated bibliography for underrepresented people in science. Likewise, she will continue to serve as adviser to the African Research Academies for Women (ARA-W).

Kwadwo “Kojo” Sarpong started the nonprofit in 2014, which provides a growing number of African women in STEM fields with opportunities for hands-on research.

That was a year after Marsteller met him as a student at Georgia Perimeter College and convinced him to transfer to Emory. Two years later, President Barack Obama bestowed the President’s Volunteer Service Award on Sarpong, now studying at Georgetown University School of Medicine.

“All I wanted to do was take all of the students we were missing and show them how thinking like a science researcher can help you in political science, writing poetry or becoming a lawyer, not just becoming a doctor,” Marsteller says.

“Research is a great way to figure out how you can make a difference in the world,” she adds. “At Emory, that’s always been part of the mission. That’s why what I do works here.”